Sunday Rockpile: Blackmon, Garner beneficiaries of Rockies off season. Duncan, Stewart closer than ever.

According to Thomas Harding, Colorado still has some free agency money left to spend, but a healthy chunk of it may be headed toward a quality reliever, especially given what that class of player has signed for thus far this winter. The leftovers of the money pot will likely go to providing more catching and rotation depth. Along with Mike McKenry and Matt Paggnozzi, who are mentioned in the linked piece as having a shot to backup Chris Iannetta, this means that two of the biggest beneficiaries of the team's moves to date may be minor league outfielders Cole Garner and Charlie Blackmon.

Before the winter began, they seemed likely to be returning to the farm for the start of the season, but in the absence of a proven OF upgrade being acquired, or even available anymore, Garner or Blackmon should have a legitimate shot at cracking the roster this Spring. Meanwhile, because of all the activity on the infield, it seems more likely to me that two of the Rockies young infield trio of Jonathan Herrera, Eric Young Jr., and Chris Nelson will be heading back to Colorado Springs to start the season. From an offensive perspective, this might actually be ideal, since the bats of Blackmon and Garner project to provide the team more (or in Nelson's case compared to Garner's projection, as much) punch. Young's still an option as an IF/OF, but a team needing offense probably should look to stock as many quality bats on the bench as possible.

Could the Rockies really be trying to emulate their division rivals and the current World Series champions Giants? Not only does the Ty Wigginton signing seem suspiciously like an attempt to replicate San Francisco's surprise success with Aubrey Huff, but he's alternately called a "gamer" and a "grinder" in separate articles by East Coast writers in brief blurbs noting his departure from Baltimore. These were also two words used to market the relatively safer, docile Giants of 2009. That said, while there are some unsettling similarities, there are some unsettling differences, too. When the Giants signed him last winter, Huff was cheaper, and while just as young, had previously posted considerably better seasons during his peak than Wigginton.

After the jump, an Ian Stewart/Eric Duncan retrospective:

The Rockies signing of Eric Duncan this past week is interesting to me, just because there's been this curious parallel between his career and Ian Stewart's, despite the players coming from opposite coasts, starting before the two were both drafted in the first round in 2003:

From Stewart's bio on his Baseball-Reference wikipage:

In 2002, Stewart was on the USA junior national team and hit .329 while slugging .532 as their first baseman. He batted .462 and slugged 1.048 as a high school senior and Baseball America named him to their high school All-American team. The other players picked for the non-1B infield slots were Brandon Wood and Eric Duncan.

Because of their pre-draft hype and because Duncan was a relatively local pick for the Yankees, fans for both Colorado and New York heaped huge expectations on their picks. Rockies fans wanted desperately for Ian Stewart to become what Evan Longoria would for the Rays, while Yankees fans wanted desperately for Duncan to be Ian Stewart. Seriously, for several years you couldn't read a report about Stewart without some Yankees fan bringing Duncan up.

After the draft, both rocketed to immediate success, and even the chances of reaching our wildest pipe dreams of the future seemed promising for each prospect...

Dayn Perry, Baseball Prospectus, 2004:

Among Wright, Marte, Dallas McPherson (who's been absolutely amazing this season) and less advanced guys like Eric Duncan, Ian Stewart, Andy Laroche, Matt Moses and Jamie D'Antona, we could be headed for golden age for third basemen in the near future.

Knowing his style, Perry may consider himself sort of correct about the whole golden age thing, but unless Stewart does have a breakout, his list only includes one of the third basemen that I would consider part of it. At any rate, for a time, it even seemed to Yankees fans that Duncan had passed Stewart in potential value...

Yankees blog, Nomaas.org, 2005:

Best hitter in the Arizona Fall League

Yankee prospect, Eric Duncan, leads the Arizona Fall League in OPS with a whopping 1.244.

This puts him ahead of Brandon Wood, Lastings Milledge, Ian Stewart, Daric Barton, Stephen Drew, Howie Kendrick, Kendry Morales, Billy Butler, Ryan Garko, Brendan Harris, Matt Kemp, Josh Anderson, Matt Murton, Andy LaRoche, Nick Markakis, Michael Johnson, Jarred Ball, Dan Uggla, Chris Denorfia, Reggie Abercrombie, Jarred Saltalamacchia, Brandon Moss, and Alex Gordon.

But then again, the Yankees have no farm system, right?

Right. At any rate, some might say the hype proved too much for both guys by the following season, but I think we saw a sort of natural ebb that occurs in the rise of many prospects save for a few potential Hall of Fame worthy types. Nonetheless, they were still getting grouped together...

Chris Constancio, Hardball Times, 2006:

He's a fine prospect, but the hype surrounding Stewart has probably gotten a little out of control. The distance between Stewart and someone like Eric Duncan might not be as significant as you think.

Stewart rebounded, Duncan continued to tread water, or worse, as he was a candidate for demotion from AAA by mid-summer 2007, even after switching to first base, and by Rocktober it seemed that the two would go on completely separate paths, except that the twist of Alex Rodriguez opting out of his contract that fall made the Yankees have to momentarily give lip service to alternatives, but not Duncan:

Tyler Kepner, NY Times, November, 2007:

Garrett Atkins? Not available, according to Rockies' GM Dan O'Dowd. "Ian Stewart needs some more time to develop," he said.

...so let me just fill in the blanks, the inability of the Yankees to fully develop their third base prospect in four years created an opportunity for the Rockies that was thwarted by our own franchise's inability to do the same. Still, by this point you would figure that Stewart would be seen in a different tier from Duncan, right?

Baseball Daily Digest, March 2008:

Top 50 Hitters (prospects) according to Rob

...

40. Eric Duncan

41. Chris Pettit

42. Pablo Sandoval

43. Tony Thomas

44. Ian Stewart

...

...yeah, the Internet, folks.

Anyway, that insignificant distance between Stewart and Duncan that Constancio referred to is for the time being going to be about 90 miles between Denver and Colorado Springs. Duncan had the powerful New York Yankees hype machine working for and then against him, Stewart was, for a time, a Baseball America and prospect watcher darling which also brought some unfair expectations. Now both are in the same organization.

While Duncan's star has certainly faded from those halcyon times, I'm actually quite pleased that we picked him up as depth. Despite the constant desire of the Yankees and their press to make him something he was not, he remains a relatively useful left handed hitter and could be a better version of Brad Eldred for us in 2011. Given that he's just entering his prime, the Rockies could find some real value from him over the next season or two.

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